'We are not ready': Struggling nation bracing for Omicron 'disaster'

·4-min read

After months of running on fumes, Kabul's only Covid-19 facility is on the brink of collapse as Afghanistan's healthcare system struggles and the threat of an Omicron outbreak looms.

Dozens of essential drugs and the diesel fuel needed to produce oxygen for coronavirus patients have run out in the Afghan Japan Hospital —a facility that serves more than four million people in Afghanistan's capital.

The hospital is facing a terrifying future with the county's health care system only able to function with a lifeline from aid organisations.

Oxygen tanks sit outside a room with a patient inside on oxygen.
The diesel fuel needed to produce oxygen for coronavirus patients has run out. Source: AP

“We face many problems here,” said Dr Ahmad Fatah Habibyar, the hospital’s administration logistics manager, citing three months of unpaid salaries, shortages of equipment and drugs, and a lack of food.

Dr Habibyar said some of the staff are in serious financial difficulty after months of not being paid and have had to sell their household furniture to make ends meet.

“Oxygen is a big issue for us because we can’t run the generators,” he said, noting the hospital’s production plant hasn’t worked for months “because we can’t afford the diesel”.

Instead, oxygen cylinders for Covid-19 patients are bought from a local supplier.

Health care system on the brink of collapse

While Covid cases in Afghanistan reached their peak a few months ago, the hospitals are now struggling.

Dr Shereen Agha, the head of the hospital’s intensive care unit, said without outside help “we are not ready for Omicron".

"A disaster will be here,” he said.

Afghanistan’s health care system is on the brink of collapse. Source: AP
Afghanistan’s health care system is on the brink of collapse. Source: AP

According to Dr Agha, the hospital lacked basic supplies like examination gloves, and two ambulances are unable to be used due to lack of fuel.

Netherlands-based aid group, HealthNet TPO had been contracted by the previous government to run the hospital, but after the contract ran out in November it was financed under a fund managed by the World Bank which like most of the international community has frozen payments to the new Taliban government.

“The health care system ... is really on the brink of collapsing," HealthNet TPO program manager Willem Reussing said.

"The Afghan-Japan Hospital is a dire example, where we are nearly begging donors to step in and save lives.”

Mr Reussing added the organisation is in negotiations to secure funding and the World Health Organization and UNICEF were only managing to maintain minimal services and did not cover the coronavirus response.

“The donor community is very reluctant to continue support and has strict conditions," he said.

Although Covid cases hit their peak in Afghanistan a few months ago, the hospitals themselves are struggling. Source: AP
Although Covid cases hit their peak in Afghanistan a few months ago, the hospitals themselves are struggling. Source: AP

Kabul's situation 'most severe'

There are shortages of medication and supplies all across Afghanistan, although it's Kabul’s Covid-19 hospital where the situation is most severe.

According to Pharmacist Bilal Ahmad, more than 36 essential medications had run out and many others had expired with another 55 medications set to run out in three months.

The international community pulled all funding and froze billions of dollars of Afghanistan’s assets abroad after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August. As the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid, the consequences have been devastating.

Half of Afghanistan's population lives in poverty, with the pandemic and a drought driving food prices up even further.

The Taliban government wants the international community to ease sanctions and release Afghanistan’s assets abroad so it can pay civil servants, including doctors and teachers.

The United Nations has sounded the alarm over a hunger crisis, with 22 per cent of Afghanistan’s 38 million people near famine and another 36 per cent facing acute food insecurity.

“We’re seeing the economic collapse being exponential,” UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said in an interview last week with The Associated Press.

“It’s getting more and more dire by the week.”

With AP

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